Farmers Union Activists Should Be Careful What They Wish For On Corporate Farming Ban


Today the North Dakota Farmers Union is busing activists to the state capitol today for a rally protesting recent changes made by the Legislature to the state’s corporate farming law.

To put it succinctly, lawmakers are looking to bolster the declining number of swine and dairy farms in the state by exempting those operations from the state’s prohibition on corporate farming among people not related by blood or marriage. The NDFU hates that idea, and they’re brought in their national president Roger Johnson (once upon a time North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner) to rally the troops.

It’s too little too late as far as the legislative process is concerned. Both chambers have debated and passed the bill, by wide margins, and Governor Jack Dalrymple has signed it into law. But there is a lot of bold talk about referring the law to the ballot which would require the group to get a petition authorized and signed by 13,452 North Dakotans by Thursday, June 18.

Hiring professional petitioners and buying your way onto the ballot is probably not a problem for a group with deep enough pockets to bus supporters around the state, but the NDFU ought to be careful what they wish for.

A referendum might set off a legal challenge attacking the very notion of a corporate farming ban, and given the outcomes of other challenges to similar bans in other states, it might not end well for the proponents of the ban.

In 1998 South Dakota voters put in place a corporate farming ban, but it was challenged and struck down by the federal courts as unconstitutional in 1998, and the U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand, refusing to hear the case.

In 2005 a corporate farming ban in Nebraska was similarly overturned by the courts.

It’s not hard to see why the courts take a dim view of these laws, and it’s strange that left-wing groups like the NDFU would support them. After all, the same right which protects the right of citizens to organize themselves into labor unions or associations like the NDFU should protect the right of farmers to organize themselves into corporations with whomever they wish.

But that aside, here’s what’s likely to happen if the NDFU tries to refer the Legislature’s easing of North Dakota’s existing ban on corporate farming: Someone is going to sue. And they’re likely to be successful. And that success is likely to go well beyond the small exemption lawmakers have carved out for swine and dairy farmers.

It’s very likely that the entire corporate farming ban would be struck down.

That wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all – I think these bans are ridiculous – but it would certainly be counterproductive to what the NDFU hopes to achieve.